Sacred Places Summer 2022 - Page 13

their love for singing , dancing , praying , and possession of the spirit , and later , when they had their own churches , preaching and drumming . There were different agendas and quite often there was a misunderstanding on the part of white preachers . 7 Indeed , the enslaved community had an extensive religious life of its own , hidden from the eyes of slave owners and white preachers . Their separate meetings were made possible by several techniques devised to avoid detection , such as meeting in secluded places such as woods , gullies , ravines , and thickets , aptly called “ hush ” or “ brush harbors .” 8 A hush harbor was a place in the antebellum American South where the enslaved , under pain of death , would gather in secret to freely discover , create , and practice their own form of religion . These secret gatherings would create a new form of religious celebration that laid the foundation for the development and practice of Sunday worship services in Black churches today .
The developing Negro religious traditions and practices added to the inevitable separation by the Negro from Anglo religious traditions and practices , leading the enslaved to desire a place of their own to worship . The separation from Anglo influence also required a complete break from the deep-seated cultural , religious , and legal commitment by southern whites to control the Christian narrative and its interpretation for the enslaved . The only path open for Negroes in their pursuit of freedom of worship was to contribute to the effort to obtain freedom during the Civil War .
After the Civil War , DuBois documented the eventual separation of Black churches from white houses of worship . He attributed the creation of Negro churches to the following :
● Special missionary efforts on the part of whites
● Direct discrimination against Blacks made by the whites during divine worship
● An increase in membership that prompted congregations to divide , whereupon distinct Black churches evolved but remained under the oversight if not the exclusive control of whites 9
From the 1870s to the turn of the century , the creation of many Black church congregations occurred alongside the construction of church buildings . Generally free from retaliation by slave owners , Negroes not only constructed their church buildings and used them for religious purposes but were free to develop additional uses for the buildings . Church buildings served as community meeting and social centers , havens from the daily challenges of the outside world ,
temporary schools until permanent structures could be built , and political halls . By the first decades of the twentieth century , the church buildings , according to author Richard Wright , had become the center of life for the Negro community . 10 Many of these churches were venues for political meetings as well as planning and strategic activities . Some of the buildings became the sites of retaliatory violence against the church congregants as America entered the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and ‘ 60s .
The Civil Rights Movement in the United States brought attention to many Negro church buildings through the events that they hosted and the people who visited them . Today , many of these churches have received historic landmark status and are widely revered in mainstream American and African American culture . However , there is no available documentation on the evolution and the socio-cultural ( Afrocentric and Eurocentric ) influences on the design and construction of these buildings . The story of African American religious and cultural life would not be complete without examining the role of church buildings in the daily life of the congregants .
These early African American church buildings express the culture , narratives , and pride of a people who labored through the human indignity of bondage , a post-Civil War and Reconstruction world , the rise of Jim Crow , and a segregationist America , to create a building type that developed into a safe haven and became a living heart to a community . The buildings represent a constructed and habitable material culture created by and for African Americans .
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christopher S . Hunter , Ph . D . is Assistant Professor of Architecture at Mississippi State University . His research focus is the study of the socio-cultural influences on the design and construction of early African American church buildings constructed between 1800 and 1920 .
7
Ibid ., 117 .
8
Raboteau , Slave Religion , 215 .
9
DuBois , The Negro Church , 41 .
10
Richard Wright , 12 Million Black Voices ( New York : Basic Books , 1941 ), 131 .
SACRED PLACES SUMMER 2022 13